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States of the Body Produced by Love: In Conversation with Nisha Ramayya
Nisha Ramayya’s work has recently and deservedly begun to draw attention from outside the small world of experimental British poetry. Her writing asks its readers (and listeners – Ramayya is a formidable performer of her work and others’) to consider where poetry exists. In the throat? The unit of the word? The movement between language(s) and the body? Does the poetic idea survive translation or is a new thought created in its place? Ramayya’s 2019 collection, States of the Body Produced By Love, published by Ignota, brings together a series of lyrical and philological essays on the substance and history of Sanskrit with poems bristling with divine and disastrous materialism. Goddesses and dictionaries purge and regurgitate colonial records as the poet grapples with the rising chorus of nationalist Hindutva claims to a primary form of linguistic knowledge. Caste is considered from a Glaswegian family home, while jazz classics, protests, cups of tea brew around the edges of the text. Salvage met Ramayya in Forest Hill, London at the end of January 2020 to discuss this collection and her practice.
CD: You’re a lecturer in creative writing at Queen Mary University of London. What impact has teaching the subject had on your own poetry?
NR: With creative writing, one of the ways I try to think about it as a useful pedagogy is in helping people to articulate their experiences or certain kinds of struggles, to put words to those feelings. I can shape conversations through the readings I choose to teach, and I definitely prioritise texts that students wouldn’t encounter in other places, like Maggie O’Sullivan’s A Natural History in Three Parts, with the typewriter collages about the IRA and bombing police cars – things the students don’t immediately understand. And it’s cool to be able to set the terms of what poetry is in that way.
Do the students push back on that? Do they query why they’re talking about the Troubles and not how to publish a poem with Faber?
Not really, because at QMUL the creative writing pathway is new and not fully established, so the students aren’t coming with their career paths in mind. I think a lot of them feel like they’re going to be going into debt anyway, they need to have a degree to get a job, so why not do something that they might enjoy along the way.
That’s interesting – so there’s been an unintended ‘oh fuck it’ mentality brought into these students’ higher-education decisions, in that sense?
Yeah! One of my favourite teaching experiences was last year, where I got to run a module I designed for third year students called ‘The Poetics of Translation’. On the first week we looked at Tom Leonard, Gloria Anzaldúa and Amiri Baraka – it was amazing to see the ripple effect each of them had with different students. There was this great little cohort of northern students who loved Tom Leonard, saying they’ve always been reprimanded for dialect and colloquial grammar, but that he gave them permission to use it.
Translation is clearly a theme in your work. Can you explain some of the origins of your interest in Sanskrit and how those two things, poetry and translation speak to each other, or don’t?
Well, my family is Hindi-speaking, although my parents spoke English at home to each other, so they didn’t raise my brother and me as Hindi-speaking. They sent us to some classes but they didn’t enforce it. I always had a desire to know the language, but I was a bit of a fatalist, thinking, I’m not going to be able to learn this language well enough to become fluent. So maybe I should do a scholarly approach. I was interested in the Indo-European language family, and I always loved dictionaries and philology and etymology so I thought that could be my way in. I started with Sanskrit classes at the Transcendental Meditation Centre in Glasgow and then SOAS. Because those are the two contexts where Sanskrit comes up, and it’s funny because at SOAS half the class were yoga instructors.
So I wanted to ask about that. The book is really fascinating in the comments you make on the relationship between form and content in Sanskrit. There’s this great bit where you’re talking about mantras, about the philosophical discussion over what they are, and you quote a scholar who says mantras are like bird songs, because they both have this common non-functionality. I was thinking of how I usually encounter mantras, which is in rushed lunchtime yoga classes in central London. The class always begin with ‘Om’ and ends with ‘Namaste’, and this view you cite, that a mantra is a meaningless piece of form, is so radical to a Western yoga perspective. I googled ‘useful mantras’ just to see what would come up and a yoga site told me to say ‘Om Shanti Shanti Shanti’ because ‘we could all use a little more peace in our lives’ – which sounds like the paradigmatic useless statement. So, through that very commercialised yoga tradition in the West we’re almost creating an unintended mirroring effect of meaninglessness, when we think what we’re doing is embedded in an exotic tradition. What do you think of the way Sanskrit is packaged as a hotline to an ‘Oriental’ spirituality?
It’s funny isn’t it, the levels of non-meaning? In the yoga example there’s a level of non-meaning because you learn the words without context, but it does mean something in that context, especially with the breathing practice – it’s just never explained. I was interested when I was reading the linguist Frits Staal talking about form and content and it just reminded me so much of what I’d read about poetry, like Charles Olson quoting Robert Creeley – ‘form is never more than an extension of content’ – and it struck me: you can talk about mantras in the ways people talk about poetry.
There’s a great irony in that section of that book. It struck me how odd it must have been for you, as a poet, to be thinking of language as devoid of content, but then you think about language poetry and sound poetry and there is this canonical history of exactly those moves being made. But you put it into this relationship with translation: it’s almost an excavation of the sound of a language that is and isn’t yours.
With the translation, initially, I was interested that in India and in the UK, to study Sanskrit, people still use a particular dictionary that was written in the nineteenth century and hasn’t been updated.
The Monier Williams one you reference in the book?
Yeah. [And] about how when people translate using that dictionary, everything is being filtered through this particular lens of the colonial context in which Monier Williams compiled it, and how that carries across a sediment. There’s a residue of sorts on all the modern translations of Sanskrit texts from the work of this colonial evangelist. It’s so weird thinking how we translate Sanskrit texts using a dictionary that was compiled as a tool to convert people from Hinduism into Christianity. So initially I was really interested in all the things that the dictionary not only contains but that also spill out of it, things that contaminate the language. But then, thinking about translation, it’s an easy metaphor for movements. That’s a thing I became more and more troubled by, which at first was great, you know? I thought, Oh, I can make a metaphor out of the literal movements of migration, cultural transpositions. But then I started to realise that it shouldn’t be so easy.
I have a real affinity with that. I started using some Irish in poems, but with a similar feeling to what you’ve described with Sanskrit: I’ve started too late to become properly good at this language. I will never be fluent and I’m just a bit sulky about that. I wanted to find a way to claim some of that language for myself, so I did a similar thing with a dictionary, extracting definition-making phrases and plopping them into the text. Sometimes I feel like I’m being smart and sometimes like I’m obviously cheating, and stealing this really beautiful prosody that comes from the pure otherness of this language, and its jarring quality for an English audience at readings – like I’m going, ‘Hah you don’t understand this,’ at the audience. But neither do I. That’s the problem. But my sense is that if you feel torn between two different linguistic cultures that’s just the place you have to occupy. There’s a push-pull tension: you can’t claim a home in the colonised language but you don’t want to be the coloniser either.
Exactly. That’s what became more complicated and difficult with Sanskrit. Initially I was thinking a lot about the colonial history and not really thinking as much as I should have been, in the earlier stages of the book, about the way that Sanskrit exists now in India. And it signifies something completely different, and it’s to do with a contemporary switch, where the Indian state has become the colonising force, a nationalistic and fascistic force. And Sanskrit has been weaponised as part of that.
How did that change the language for you? My impression, from reading about Vedic texts in the history of science, is that Hindutva pushes the idea that anything coming through Sanskrit has an ur-element to it, that it’s a language of pure origin forces. That’s incredibly exciting to someone who works with language and meaning but the political aspect must be unsettling.
Right, because you can take a word from a dictionary and pluck it from its context. That’s what a dictionary does. A lot of the early scholars of Sanskrit were German, and there are these links between Sanskrit and notions of this Indo-Aryan originary race. That’s where the links between European or Western fascism and Sanskrit, tantra and ‘Eastern spirituality’ are so clear, and I need to return to this. I couldn’t do it with this book. It cast a huge shadow over the writing and by the end I was spitting with rage, but the book was a block that I needed to pass through so that I can approach these links now as a research project. Arthur Avalon, who’s one of the writers I quote from loads, was a tantric scholar, and I found out that he corresponded with [fascist philosopher] Julius Evola, who was very interested in Eastern philosophy and spirituality. Avalon was also, under a different name, a barrister. So, there’s this whole thing about judges, lawyers, law-makers, magical speech and magical thinking in the law which I’m so keen to research.
There’s always a magic behind pronouncements, that moment of waiting to see how they will be transformed into action. Will the spell work? You use [Samuel] Johnson in the book: at points he’s almost an interlocutor. What came out in those of his definitions that you chose was that definitions always have to contain their own cancellation. And this is a theme in the Hindu mythology you use too, where gods and goddesses have to eat themselves in order to survive. I love that play: it seems like you’re taking some of that contamination from the nineteenth-century Sanskrit translations, too, and upturning it, showing that it’s not the universal language, but it contains universal human problems.
I love in definitions the moment where the lexicographer who creates a façade of being an authority and never being wrong about anything admits he doesn’t know the answer. There are so many moments where he has to admit that he doesn’t know.
‘Tantra may or may not compromise’ is one I wrote down; and then, ‘The sea is what is not not the sea’.
Yeah: the sea is what is not exemplified – like, obviously! How could you exemplify the sea? I mean, come on!
You can imagine Johnson standing on the banks of the Thames estuary saying, ‘How do I do this one?’ How many of the stories you open with, the lore about Shiva and Sati, how much of that was familiar to you already? Or did you discover those tales through your scholarship?
It’s a mixture. My brother and I, like loads of South Asian children, used to read comics about gods and goddesses. We read a lot of folk tales and fables and Hindu mythology; sometimes Buddhist and Sikh myths too, in cartoon forms. Some were more familiar to me, but those that centred on the tantric goddesses were the ones that I had to really look for. It took a while to find them, because no one in my family or extended family had even heard of them. But, they would kind of recognise some of the images, or there would be certain things that were familiar. That said, a lot of the goddesses I became interested in were associated more with rural traditions, and there are caste distinctions wrapped up in there as well. My family is supposedly upper-caste and devoted to the warrior gods, who I find incredibly boring, and puritanical and pompous. So I had to look outside the family traditions.
You often draw on and quote B.R. Ambedkar in the book, and so I wondered why you chose to think about caste through these myths and through Sanskrit translation, and also how it feels to write about these things when you’re in London and Glasgow?
It’s one of the more difficult issues. Caste was something that was always present. There was a family pride about being upper caste, but at the same time it was like, ‘Oh it’s all silly. We’re at the top, but we know it’s meaningless.’ Or sometimes, ‘Such-and-such aunt doesn’t let someone from a lower caste sit on her sofa.’ You know, these really shocking things would come out as if they were silly, but pointing out the distinction means it exists. There’s a lot in caste ideology about contamination, purity and touch, who can touch what, sit where, eat what. I read Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Casteand was just appalled I hadn’t read it sooner. When I finally felt able to talk to my family about it, I brought it up at Christmas of all times. They described him as a great teacher, one of the authors of the Constitution, that there are statues of him … And I was like, ‘Ok, but have you read this book?’ And they had just learned about him in school: they didn’t know what he had actually said, the most important thing. When I read him it changed everything. It cast a light and a shadow, both, over everything I’d done and thought about and read with regards to India and South Asia until then.
There’s a shorthand and lazy way that caste is talked about in the West, as if it’s a synonym for class, but some examples you give show the very material complexity of the system, especially for lower-caste women. For example, the stories about Mātaṅgī, who has this incredible bodily exuberance, who crosses so frequently over the acceptable bounds of society.
Mātaṅgī immediately appealed to me, initially as a feminist: abject, leaky body full of the erotics of taboo. In that sense, I was like, ‘Oh she’s amazing.’ There are descriptions of her that say things like, she has a line of hair from her belly button to her pubic hair and she’s always sweating and beads of sweat roll down her lips. I love these details that are not usually associated with goddess bodies, which are so smoothed over. She’s not hairless or dry or without smell. Also she’s menstruating. But then, when I started thinking more about caste, I saw that she’s meant to be empowering but not for people like me. She’s important for people who can’t afford to make lavish temple offerings, and who can only offer spoiled food – that’s who she’s for.
She absorbs waste with relish, in the stories you include, devours filth passionately, and that’s what makes her so powerful, her ability to take pleasure in what the other gods see as disgusting. Loving isn’t a romantically clean, sanitary, transcendent act: loving involves loving shit and blood and sweat and piss. Mātaṅgī seems to embody this. It goes back to the potential for creation in destruction, their being tied in one act.
Yes – she’s not a saviour. She’s not going to change your circumstances if you pray to her. But she’ll see you as you are and love you like that.
Another way in which bodies show up in the book is your return to the relationship between the throat and the mouth. Why is that such a focus for embodiment in your work?
There are a lot of tantric texts which are philosophical treatises on language, and in a lot of them language is personified as many goddesses. There’s the singular goddess Vāc who is voice, and then every syllable and phoneme and particle of language is another goddess. So you can imagine them populating your mouth and your throat. I loved the idea of a feedback loop of goddesses that are chatting to each other inside your mouth, but also speaking you into being at the same time. I was interested in the grammatical and iconographical quirk of language being feminine, and it felt so rich to explore that imagery and follow it through. The neck is also important because that’s where you get your head cut off, and that’s a key image for both destruction and liberation from the ego.
There are images of decapitation in the book. There’s the cover, and one of a couple having sex, then a decapitated goddess is sitting on him, looking brilliantly disinterested. Tell me about the images and why you chose to incorporate them in that way.
I always, from the beginning, made images as part of the poetic practice, because it felt relevant to the sources. Diagrams and charts and pictures of body parts and mandalas. And the Sanskrit text has visual connotations in the Devanagari script. I wanted to make poetry that spoke to the visual and the acoustic and the semantic properties of Sanskrit and ritual practice. It was definitely a negotiation with the publisher! I [originally] had probably triple the number of images in the manuscript. Because a lot of Tantric and Hindu culture is visual and acoustic: worship is sometimes through seeing and sometimes through hearing, so I wanted to figure out how to convey that in the book. And there’s also a pseudo-ethnography of me going to temples and taking pictures, or using old family pictures. The mother of Sarah Shin, the publisher, is an illustrator, and she really kindly agreed to do some illustrations for me. I asked her for jasmine, a banyan tree, heather. I love the mother relationship there, because my mum painted the epigraph, which is a Sanskrit text. I really like that the mother-daughter thing, which is a motif in the book, made it into the book in that way.
I also loved the story you tell about how elephants and clouds are related, because it could so easily seem like such a ridiculous image. But the idea of elephants being such crucial creatures in an ecology of heavenly-earthly relations is amazing. They are the messengers who hear and translate the clouds?
In the narrative of the book, there’s a bitter conclusion, a break-up with the Indian state and Sanskrit and right-wing Hinduism. But I couldn’t help but end on one of the things I first fell in love with from studying the language. The fact that elephants and clouds could correlate in any way and have a relationship is so wonderful. Even as I was considering the awful political ways in which this language is being used, I wanted to find and return to that initial awe and delight.
Right. You shouldn’t have to abdicate from that position of awe.
To abdicate is an interesting way of putting it. Because it is a powerful position to study Sanskrit, to know enough of the language to experience awe and delight, to write poetry about it. Powerful claims to knowledge, to being entitled to use myths and translations in that way, and then to renounce that entitlement. There is a privilege in being able to do that. There’s really a lot of exorcism to get through in writing, isn’t there?